Say, have you lost weight?

YOU'RE TOO KIND: A BRIEF HISTORY OF FLATTERY By Richard Stengel Simon & Schuster 315 pp., $25

In the changeless, strictly hierarchical society of ancient Egypt, flattery was so much a way of life that it wasn't even regarded as flattery. In the (relatively) democratic society of classical Greece, however, flatterers were despised.

This - and more - we learn from Richard Stengel's lively survey of the age-old art of sycophancy. In Egypt, he reminds us, all power, all justice, all truth flowed from the pharaoh at the top of a pyramid-like social order. But the Greeks valued the freedom to speak one's mind. They also realized "a democracy could survive only if men were truthful and frank." Where the people ruled, the Greeks saw that there was a danger that flattering the people would replace the practice of flattering the king.

Although much of Stengel's book reads as an apologia for certain forms of flattery, particularly the personal sort that, rightly applied, can make both the giver and receiver feel good, he also alerts us to the dangers of that far more insidious brand of flattery practiced by politicians who pander to popular opinion.

It was a problem recognized by America's Founding Fathers. Alexander Hamilton, notes Stengel, "proposed the same remedy that the Greeks did: frankness, candor, and not poring over the poll results every morning."

Stengel examines his subject from almost every conceivable angle, from its possible roots in sociobiology to the threat that certain forms of it may pose to our modern democracy. Entertaining, witty, often glib, his light-hearted "history" does have a serious point to make.

Flattery in its most benign form, Stengel explains, can be seen as a kind of "reciprocal altruism," a concept drawn from evolutionary biology. The person (or animal) who pays tribute to the skills, attractiveness, strength, or cleverness of the other person (or animal) makes the other creature feel good and gains himself a useful friend or ally: a win-win situation for both.

Stengel takes us from primeval scenes of chimps deferring to alpha males, to medieval troubadours extravagantly praising their mistresses, to Dale Carnegie advising folks "How to Win Friends and Influence People." In an irreverent chapter on the Old Testament, he portrays even the Creator of the Universe as hungry for approbation.

Along the way, we also learn what Francis Bacon, Machiavelli, Castiglione, Montaigne, Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other luminaries had to say about the subject. He concludes with an epilogue on the rather less edifying subject of "How to Flatter Without Getting Caught."

A seasoned journalist who has also collaborated with Nelson Mandela on "Long Walk to Freedom" (1994) Stengel has a keen eye for the colorful quote or anecdote and a real knack for neatly summarizing the ideas of various writers.

It seems a pity, though, given his familiarity with Mandela, that his history of flattery omits the fact that the South African leader saw fit to institute an "mbonga," or official praise-singer whose job description includes flattering the president on state occasions. He might perhaps have observed that even a man so notable for magnanimity, courage, and many other virtues has not been able to resist the siren song of flattery.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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